Revisionism: the Soviet Union in the Second World War

FRFI 212 December 2009 / January 2010

The capitalist crisis is now manifest: a financial crisis, economic decline, attacks on public services, rising unemployment, the spread of racism, increased militarism and readiness to wage war. As the economic and social bases of privilege within the working classes are undermined, so the bourgeoisie intensifies its ideological assault on socialism. On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall the same underlying messages were dinned into people’s ears: ‘socialism does not work’ and ‘life is better under capitalism’. It is precisely when capitalism demonstrably cannot meet people’s needs that we get this barrage. Now the history of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating fascism is being revised to equate the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany. During the Second World War the Soviet Union broke 80% of Germany’s armoured divisions and lost 25-27 million people in doing so. If it were not for the determination, organisation and sacrifice of the Soviet people the fascists would not have been defeated when and where they were and humanity may not have survived the extermination machine. TREVOR RAYNE reflects on Russia and the Soviet Union.

Baltic states are redefining Nazi collaborators as ‘anti-communist combatants’ and their historic participation in anti-Semitic pogroms are justified as ‘patriotic anti-communism’. In former socialist states calls for gay rights are branded as a communist plot to undermine national morale. A statement issued in Lithuania by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, equating Stalinism with Nazism for being equally guilty of war crimes, genocide and human rights abuses, is condemned in the 13 September 2009 issue of Cuba’s Granma International. The European Parliament proposed that 29 August, anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939 Soviet-German Pact) should be declared a day of remembrance of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. This is done while the official unemployment rate is 14% in Lithuania  and 16% in Latvia, when the average Gross Domestic Product in the former socialist countries has declined by 6.2% this year alone – down 18.4% in Lithuania, 16% in Latvia, 14% in the Ukraine, 8.5% in Russia, 6.5% in Hungary etc. Economy after economy in the former socialist countries has not seen such contraction and chaos since 1945.

Russia’s industrial output is down almost 20% in a year. It is indicative that the total length of paved roads in Russia has fallen by almost a third since 2000; disrepair, weeds and forest return. In the former socialist countries governments discourage the media from reporting the scale of the crisis. The ruling classes are afraid.

Cuba, a living example of the struggle for socialism, is subject to a deluge of lies, chorused by much of the British left. Any changes that the Cubans make are misrepresented as concessions to capitalism and markets. Raul Castro was presented as a ‘realist’ as opposed to the ‘dogmatist’ Fidel Castro and realism is presented as mimicking capitalism. The success of the Chinese revolution and Chinese economy, likely to surpass Japan’s as the second biggest in the world within a year, is attributed only to China’s embrace of markets and capitalism, and never to the fact that the Chinese revolution, with Chinese Communist Party leadership, had established a strong, coherent and popular state able to withstand the worst predations of multinational corporations.

It is necessary to counter the falsification of socialist history and learn lessons that one day the working class in Britain will implement in the construction of socialism.

The defeat of fascism

The bourgeoisie say that the Soviet Union and socialist countries were failures because they collapsed. The Soviet Union was not a failure for the working class – it was a victory! The Soviet victory over fascism was a victory for workers around the world, particularly in Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist countries was a victory for the imperialist bourgeoisie and its class allies within the socialist countries over the working class in the socialist countries and internationally. It was also a victory for the petit-bourgeois socialists who claim Marx’s legacy, but who celebrated imperialism’s triumph, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

2009’s Remembrance ceremonies in Britain were amplified as the state needs to rally people round the flag as the failing endeavour in Afghanistan sows doubt; poppies galore. We are told that the US and Britain fought for freedom and democracy in two world wars and won, and that they fight for freedom today. The June anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy has been turned into a media event, a memory magnified at the expense of a sober reckoning of the Second World War (although survivors, like the last combatants of the First World War, often express their disgust at war).

The Second World War was a continuation of the First World War; expressing monopoly capital’s constant drive to divide and re-divide the world, with competing imperialisms fighting for markets, resources and spheres of control. All the major capitalist powers underestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to resist and, more so, its ability to defeat German imperialism: a major miscalculation. That ability was won by decades, even a century, of revolutionary ferment in Russia; the exchange of ideas, the coming and going of political parties which eventually produced Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Marx and Engels understood the revolutionary significance of the Russian working class and peasantry. In 1870 Russian émigrés in Geneva asked Marx to represent them on the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association. That year Jenny Marx said of Karl, ‘He has been studying Russian as if it were a matter of life or death.’ In the 1882 Preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels state, ‘Russia forms the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe.’ Capital was translated into Russian in 1872, its first translation into another language. (See August Nimtz, Science & Society, October 2009)

Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, more than a dozen foreign armies invaded Russia including 40,000 British troops, over 13,000 US troops, 70,000 Japanese, 12,000 French, 12,000 Poles – over 155,000 foreign soldiers on Russian soil to, in the words of Winston Churchill, then British Minister for War and Air, ‘strangle it [Bolshevism] at birth’. Churchill primarily directed the invasion armies. They were defeated by the Red Army led by the Bolsheviks.

Hitler told General Rumstedt before the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, ‘You have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’

The Nazis and other imperialists believed the Germans would win a quick victory with its Blitzkreig (lightening war) – the Shock and Awe of its time. Six months before his execution in the 1937-38 Red Army purges, Marshal Tukhachesky addressed the Soviet General Staff Academy and emphasised the political and moral character of the war to come, ‘As for the Blitzkreig... this is directed towards an enemy who doesn’t want to and won’t fight it out. If the Germans met an opponent who stands up and fights and takes the offensive himself, this would give a different aspect to things. The struggle would be bitter and protracted; by its very nature it would induce great fluctuations in the front on this side and that, and in great depth. In the final resort, all would depend on who had the greater moral fibre and who at the close of operations disposed of reserves in depth.’

Three months before Germany launched its June 1941 assault on the Soviet Union, Hitler told his generals, ‘The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion: the struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete ideologies. I know that the necessity for such means of making war is beyond the comprehension of you generals but... I insist absolutely that my orders be executed without contradiction. The commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. German soldiers guilty of breaking international law... will be excused. Russia has not participated in the Hague Convention and therefore has no rights under it.’

By the summer of 1942, 80% of the German army was in Soviet territory. The Soviet government asked the US and Britain to open a second front in the west, as it had asked Britain in July 1941. They did not. German troops had advanced quickly into Poland, France and elsewhere. However, ‘Surrounded Russian soldiers did not behave like French soldiers in similar circumstance. All too often they fought on and had to be killed before the ground they held could be secured.’ (John Keegan, Barbarossa, 1970) The French ruling class had, in part, been ambivalent about fighting fascism. Destroyed Red Army formations were replaced by people’s militia. German reports tell of the stubborn refusal of Red Army soldiers to lay down their arms until they ran out of ammunition. In Stalingrad the Red Army fought with Soviet workers at their side. The battle was street by street, house by house, guerrilla war driven by a moral and political commitment to the Soviet state and its people. This was the achievement of a century of revolutionary ferment and political education.

The Battle of Stalingrad was fought between July 1942 and February 1943. It halted and reversed the fascist advance. In this single battle the Soviet Union suffered 487,741 killed or missing, more than all US or British dead throughout the Second World War. Red Army soldiers pointed to the ruins of Stalingrad all about them and told their German foes, ‘One day, Berlin will look like this’.

The Siege of Leningrad claimed 630,000 Soviet lives. Between 22 June 1941 and 1 February 1942, 2.8 million Soviet prisoners of war died, conforming to Hitler’s directive. At the Battle of Normandy the western allies lost 35,000 killed; one fourteenth of the Soviet casualties at Stalingrad. This is not to belittle those who fought fascism on its western front nor those who fought within its own lines as partisans. However, it should be noted that the western allies’ leadership did not mobilise for the western front until the Red Army was pushing the fascists back towards Berlin. As Soviet forces approached Dresden, Churchill ordered the RAF and USAF to bomb the city. The RAF and USAF dropped 700,000 phosphorous bombs on almost 1.2 million people. The city ‘turned into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.’ (Kurt Vonnegut) Tens and even hundreds of thousands of people were burned to death in the resulting firestorm. The US and British demonstrated to the Soviet Union what they were capable of and left the advancing Red Army nothing but ruin. History and the working class must recognise the contribution that the Soviet Union made to the twentieth century and to humanity.

The imperialists’ attempt to strangle Bolshevism at birth, the threats and German-led invasion, the imperialist encirclement and sabotage of the Soviet economy profoundly affected the character of the Soviet state. In particular, the failure of the European working class movement to spread the socialist revolution after 1917 and then to sufficiently defend it against attack, compounded the difficulties faced by the Soviet people. A single party system was necessary, as was a powerful army and repressive apparatus if the state was to survive and stand against imperialism – and the Soviet working class knew that.

Yet the question has to be answered: ‘How was a working class that could defeat the fascist invaders so demoralised and demobilised that it could allow the Soviet and other socialist states to be destroyed?’ We will explore what happened and why in future issues of FRFI.

Estimated number of armed forces personnel and civilians killed in the Second World War and as a % of 1939 national populations.

Country

Numbers killed

% of population

UK

386,000

0.8%

USA

405,000

0.3%

Soviet Union

25-27 million

14.2%

China

15 million

3.5%

Germany

7 million

8.8%

Japan

1.8 million

1.8%

Poland

6 million

17.2%

 

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